directed by Roy William Neill
starring Dan Duryea, June Vincent, Peter Lorre
Musicals and film noir are not two film styles one would think could live together harmoniously but Roy William Neill’s Black Angel manages to stitch the two approaches together into a curious and satisfying film that not only blends disparate story elements but plays actors against type and plays with audience expectations in a way that elevates the entire affair.
Director Roy William Neill, best known for directing the Universal Studios Sherlock Holmes series and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, helms this quirky noir weaving the seemingly incongruous styles of musical and noir together in a captivating, unique film. Black Angel is based on the novel by Cornell Woolrich, who also wrote the source novel for Robert Siodmak’s sublime noir Phantom Lady and Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window. Dan Duryea, best known for playing creepy heavies in film noirs like Scarlet Street, The Woman in the Window, and Criss Cross, plays Martin Blair, a complicated leading man, a hopeless drunk who attempt to rehab his wasted life while teaming up with Cathy Bennett (June Vincent) to try clear her husband’s name of the murder of Blair’s estranged wife. Blair and Catherine go undercover as a nightclub singing act to gather evidence on nightclub owner Marko (Peter Lorre, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) the man they suspect is the real killer. Blair’s battle with the bottle and his growing infatuation with Cathy complicates matters and causes questions about how motivated he can remain in clearing her husband’s name while Cathy herself begins to doubt her own feelings.
Peter Lorre and Dan Duryea made their respective careers out of playing the bad guys that contemporary audiences (and modern viewers familiar with the actors) must have been jarred by the revelations of the true nature of the actors’ characters. In fact all three major characters in Black Angel are remarkably complex especially for a post-war B movie thriller. The playing Lorre and Duryea off type probably add more to the tension in the film than the screenplay by Roy Chanslor, especially as the middle act is heavily padded out with June Vincent’s singing.
Arrow Academy’s video presentation is exemplary, especially when considering it was created from multiple source elements. The black and white photography is crisp with great shadow detail, always a plus in film noir. The mono soundtrack is sparkling, especially in June Vincent’s numerous musical numbers which Vincent does her own singing and Dureya actually plays piano.
Alan K. Rode provides the films audio commentary that manages to combine analysis of the film, biographic info on cast and crew, and production history in a spirited talk that never bogs down in mere recitation and includes great anecdotes including one about George Raft punching Peter Lorre and Dan Duryea’s difficulties in balancing his personal life as a family man with his usual on screen persona as a violent sociopath.
The other main extra on the disc is A Fitting End, a 20 minute video essay from author and film studies professor Neil Sinyard, who has written books on Alfred Hitchcock, Fred Zinneman, and William Wyler. Sinyard with the driest of wits provides a fascinating analysis of the film, breaking down the film, its players, and the author Cornell Woolrich, and director Roy William Neill.